What I Wish I Had Known

While the following may seem like a bit of rambling to you (it does to me), these are some practices and suggestions that I think might be useful. Some I had known for years, others I learned as I went along.

It's a totally subjective list, of course. If there's something you wish you had known when you started the hobby, or something that you've discovered that might be helpful to others, please tell me.






Extremely compressed
selective compression.

Scale Ruler
A scale ruler.

Selective Compression

This is a concept that's well known in the hobby, and I think it may be second nature to most modelers. But when I came across the term and a discussion about "selective compression," it gave me a better idea of spatial relations in scale modeling - if that makes any sense.

As the phrase implies, it has to do with deciding what you want to remove from an item or a scene to make it work better. This happens in several areas including "size" and "content." From what I can tell, most building kits, while technically "to scale" are not "to size" - some of the stores in my town are only a scale twenty feet wide.

You will be using selective compression from the very beginning of your decision making process. It's what modelers do all the time.

The vehicles, as well as the building components, are N scale in the picture of It's the Depot on the left. But if I were to have built an accurate model of Home Depot (and its parking lot), even in N scale it would probably have taken up half the table.

That's the take-away: The larger a structure your modeling, the more difficult it is to build it to scale accurately.

The more you consciously decide what and what not to include, or what size to make certain components, you'll develop a sense of what important features should be a part of your scene in order to better model your subject vs. the "Let's see what fits" approach. (Hint: If your paint colors are relatively accurate, you're halfway there!)

A useful tool to have is a scale ruler. It measures feet in several scales. (It can be an eye-opener.)

Multiple Projects


Paint Booth
Decent weather is required
to use this paint booth.

One thing I learned from my old production days is to have multiple projects underway simultaneously. I go one step further now and try to make sure the upcoming tasks are different in nature. For instance, depending on weather, mood, available resources, and several other factors, I'm able to choose the best project for a particular condition. I might have a plaster task to do in the garage, or spray painting that has to be done on a clear and mild day outside. Or a web site to tweak – perfect for quarantining or inclement Oregon weather. (We were having both as I originally wrote this.)

Of course, often, I just feel like doing a specific task, regardless of any other priority. The thing is it's good to keep the juice flowing and not bump into modeler's block because you can't do that one next task you had planned.

Available Material

As described elsewhere, beside building kits, early on I started modifying them – some extensively. That wouldn't have been possible without the availability of a huge assortment of styrene shapes, patterns and building parts like scale doors, windows, etc.

I'm lucky that the local hobby store has a good selection of styrene. Many more building supplies are available on-line. Check out Plastruct, Evergreen, and Titchy. There are, of course, many other suppliers.

Woodland Scenics

I know that there are numerous manufacturers and suppliers of scenery material, but I'm a Woodland Scenics (WS) fan. Besides having a mind-boggling number of products, they all work very well with each other.

When I wanted to learn how to make scenery, I purchased several books – each was helpful in ways. But when I started using the WS products, and got their Complete Guide to Model Scenery it all started to come together. It's a book worth having (even if you don't buy your material from them). But between that manual and the videos on their web site, it's a great education.

As with many products, prices will usually be lower from a hobby supply vendor rather than purchasing directly from a manufacturer. (I usually buy from hobbylinc.com.)

Computer Usage

Although I have an extensive background using computers including business and graphics applications, I didn't expect it to be such an important part of my model railroad production.

In the course of my model-making, I use (besides the Internet – see below) Word, Excel, Photoshop, Google Maps and Earth, and DreamWeaver (for this project).

Printed Bricks
Not the only place I used
printed bricks

Much can be done in a simple word processor. But If you have a color printer and are comfortable with photo‑editing software, you essentially have an unlimited ability to produce signs, pictures and patterns, and then print them on plain paper, photo paper, clear labels, white labels and decals. I created brick inlays on the town's sidewalks by printing a brick pattern on plain paper and gluing it to the sidewalk.

Click to see the
subway tile...

...and the road markings.

Excel Tracks
Paper track for mockups.

I have to give a special shout out to Microsoft Excel.

I’d been using Excel since it was introduced, and even taught an Excel class at a community college. But I don’t think it ever occurred to me to use it as a graphics application.

Check out the photos to the left. Because of the ease at which grids can be manipulated and how colors and shading can be applied to each component of a cell, I was able to create the subway tile effect - complete with signage – for my Fenway diorama.

And recently I created a Z scale scene of a freeway which was off in the distance. Once again, I used Excel to create the roadway and stripes!

I wanted to mock up some Z scale track for the section mentioned above. Once again, Excel was a useful tool.


If you have a hobby shop near you that has a good selection of model railroad material (as well as a knowledgeable staff) you are very lucky. Outside of large cities, these businesses are few and far between. It would have been very difficult for me to embrace this hobby were it not for the variety of on-line resources on YouTube and vendor websites, as well as model train forums.

Of course, like any other subject of on-line videos, there's some "sifting" to do, if you know what I mean. But surfing railroad stuff is a lot more fun than Solitaire, right?

As you probably know, there are several model railroad periodicals. Model Railroader Magazine is a good one, and they have a nice selection of videos in their Video Plus section. Subscribers pay $2.25 a month.

Testing And Practice

When I first started, there was much to learn - like everything. The first time I walked into the local hobby store and asked for plastic glue I started an education. (The last time I had used model cement, there was only one to choose from at the drug store on the corner – it came out of a gooey tube.)

While I knew I had a lot to learn, I didn't realize how much time I'd spend testing. There is so much information on-line that it can be overwhelming, especially when personal opinions are intertwined. (This site is no different, LOL.) And what I found is that doing your own hands-on product testing is not only helpful, but can be fun and creative. When I was first trying out different types of plasters and scenery material I felt like I was in kindergarten. (What a mess I made – fortunately in the garage.)

First Scenery Test
The first scenery test...

Modified Scenery Test
...keeps on testing.

Water testing
One of many water tests.

More Water Tests
More of many water tests...

Water tint testing
...and then the tints!

Mountain Test
An early mountain test, photographed outside
for a neat effect.

As you can tell by phase one of my town layout, I sort of resisted scenery since, unlike plastic model kits, I had no experience at all with the products or techniques. But I knew that if I wanted to create a scene outside of the city limits, I'd have to jump in, get some stuff, and give scenery a try.

I was very pleased with the first test's outcome. Of course, the good thing about "testing" is that even poor results are valuable and constitute a successful test.

As it turned out, my first scenery test went on to help me test other products and techniques on the same module. Even the slice off the front on the second image was a test as to whether or not I could trim my foam and plaster dioramas cleanly. (Indeed I could - and do.)

Once I knew I was going to recreate the river, I started testing water products and techniques. Although I had modeled water in a few small places previously, the river would be highly visible and needed to be as best as I could get it.

As you may have read previously, I never rush and rarely schedule production. If I don't know what glue to use for a particular application, I'll buy two or three different ones and test. Same with paint, plasters, etc. (And, as shown on the left, water tints.)

Of course just because one product doesn't produce the best results in a certain situation, you may realize that it works in another. For instance, there are places where you may not want glue to be too strong in order to allow for future modifications.

(Did you know that the Post-it Note was the result of a glue experiement that didn't turn out as expected?)
The techniques you use may also vary even when using the same product. You'll have variations in formulas, drying times, paint types, etc. With all the variables, it literally took me a year (on and off) to come up with a good technique to create rivers and ponds.

Testing admittedly can get expensive and takes time. For modelers short on either money or time, I suggest taking advantage of any related on-line tutorial you can find – there are dozens on any subject you can think of! And you can save your own hands-on testing for when you deem it important enough.


There are, of course, a number of reasons you might want to take a break from modeling – and any other hobby I would imagine. And at certain times, other aspects of life take precedence for a while.

But several times I've experience a sort of paralysis, stemming mainly from not being sure of what to do next. Since I never work from a detailed master plan, I have always just sort of kept going to the next logical step. However once in a while, I'm not sure of what that is.

After some period of inactivity, to shake myself out of it, I just start doing something. It may be directly related to the project in front of me, or it may actually be starting something new. It might just be making some plaster rocks or putting a model kit together. The important thing is the something – staying active is the best way to keep the juices flowing.

But always keep in mind that this is a hobby. Hopefully you're not working under a deadline, so don't beat yourself up if you need to take a break.

Let It Dry

Don't touch something to see if the paint is dry. Don't pick something up to see if the glue has set. I'm embarrassed to tell you how often I don't follow this advice.

What Aspect Of The Hobby Do You Enjoy?

Like most hobbies, people enjoy model railroading in different ways. Some folks like running passenger trains, or enjoy switching freight trains in yards. Some folks spend their time highly detailing their locomotives and rolling stock. Others collect antique or other valuable model trains.

Personally, it was a bit surprising that I got into the scenery aspect more than running the trains. Although I certainly run mine relatively often, I've got to admit that the time I spend operating the railroad is a fraction of the time I spend creating scenery.

Of course you don't need to decide at the beginning on what you will specialize. In fact, you may never decide on a single focus and just keep playing, exploring and changing direction. Remember, there are no rules!

I think the key is momentum! Keep following your interests and keep moving forward. If you find yourself "blocked" and you don't know what to do next, find another path and do something! But never forget that this is all for fun.

The funny thing is, a wrong decision (or even a mistake) may block you from going forward – or it just might inspire you to go off in a different direction.

Just do it!

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